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The lawyer and the geek

13 August 18

Given the amount of client money their firm is likely to hold, those in charge have no option but to concern themselves with the more technical aspects of management

by Austin Lafferty

I recently held a training meeting with my solicitors, paralegals and admin staff. It was predicated on understanding and applying duties under GDPR. I am such a geek and a jessie that I created most, though not all of the data protection documents myself, with a couple of styles bought in, and have set up our regime, which I hope is robust and, as importantly, user-friendly for both staff and clients. 

There is nothing quite like getting really stuck into a project to make you understand it properly. I read that in the Second World War, when commandos were being trained for work behind enemy lines before D-Day, one of their tasks when ensconced in the Scottish Highlands was to recce an isolated farmhouse, or a mountain bothy, as a dummy attack target, without being spotted or captured. In order to bring back the best layout and defence details, they were sent out with just paper and pencil. The job was to sketch the perimeter, the attack points and fallback routes, just by observing and drawing them.

Some of you may know my leisure activities include portraiture. The story of the commandos was immediately recognisable to me. Anyone can take a photo, a selfie, a mobile phone pic, but sitting looking continually and again and again at a face while concentrating on recreating features accurately on the page, records the image not just on the page, but in your brain too. I can even now call to mind all sorts of portrait subjects from years ago – human and canine (lots of people want their dog drawn), seared into my memory palace.

The bank? You’re it

It’s the same with all of legal practice, especially management. I am not arrogant enough to say I can do everyone else’s job as well as they can, but I have made it my business to study all aspects of our firm’s work, and in true geek mode many of the wider areas required of management – AML, that dratted GDPR, accounts rules, IFB, terms of engagement (we recently went through an exercise in updating these – yup, guilty, I spent hours at night typing and track-changing), risk management, cross-selling and financial planning. 

I have said and written before – it’s neither new nor rocket science – law firms do not run themselves. Management doesn’t just happen to other people, or get remembered at 4.30 on a Friday. And there is one aspect of high street legal practice that transcends all others for risk. Show me the money. At that training meeting, once I had bored/worried everyone about privacy notices and data retention, I added on a few important topics. 

None more so than how we manage the clients’ and our own money (that’s two separate things, by the way, just in case anyone thought…). I made the point flippantly at the time, but have come to believe as core, that we are not principally a law firm, but a bank that happens to provide some legal services. On any given day – and bear in mind we are a small/medium sized suburban general practice – we have between £8 million and £11 million in our clients’ account. Most of it is mortgage money going through for a few days/hours. Some is client deposits or proceeds, we have a healthy surplus, and our fees lie there till taken.

Keeping on top

If I worry about one area of errors more than others, it is the financial work – arithmetic done sloppily, fee and outlay quotes incomplete, ledger balances left too long without action (both credit and debit), cash statements that don’t match the ledger, and God help us, I have seen the decimal point in the wrong place. We have a fantastic cashier and good case management system so most problems are solved before they become issues. But putting on my Law Society of Scotland hat, I have seen over the years that the vast bulk of problems that firms and solicitors have is not in their knowledge of the law or ability to represent clients, it is in the devilish detail of the accounts and the ledgers.

Solicitors’ Pavlovian response is to berate the Society’s Big Brother/oppressive/nitpicking mentality when the inspectors pore over the firm’s books. But as with other aspects of legal practice, I ask readers to put themselves in the position of clients. If you went into John Lewis or Morrisons and they got your change wrong, held on to your money for six months without accounting to you, or gave you a receipt that didn’t match your transaction, you’d be outraged, and rightly so. Why should we as solicitors be any different?

We’re not.

Austin Lafferty is founder and senior partner of Austin Lafferty Ltd, Glasgow, Hamilton and East Kilbride
Stephen Gold hopes to return shortly

 

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